By JOHN LYONS
FOREIGN Minister Kevin Rudd has arrived in Israel with a blunt message: allow international inspectors into your nuclear facility. He has also called on Israel to stop building in Jewish settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In an interview with The Australian before he arrived in Israel last night, Mr Rudd staked out strong positions on both issues. While many countries are calling on Israel to halt settlement growth, it is Mr Rudd’s strong stance on Israel’s nuclear facility that is bound to be most controversial in Israel.
Israel refuses to confirm that it even has nuclear weapons, but foreign intelligence analysts familiar with the program believe Israel has just over 200 nuclear warheads at its facility in Dimona in southern Israel. Israeli officials have confirmed to The Australian that Israel has nuclear weapons but will not place a figure on them.
Mr Rudd told The Australian: “Our view has been consistent for a long period of time, and that is that all states in the region should adhere to the NPT, and that includes Israel.”
But it is what he added next by referring to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that has caught Israeli officials by surprise: “And therefore their nuclear facility should be subject to IAEA inspection.”
He was speaking before reports that a WikiLeaks cable suggested Australia, along with the US, could be drawn into a nuclear war in the Middle East if Israel were to attack Iran in an attempt to disable its nuclear program.
Israeli officials were not surprised by Mr Rudd’s call for Israel to sign the NPT but were taken aback by his call for IAEA inspections. One high-ranking Israeli official said: “I don’t remember any Australian minister saying (Israel’s) facilities should be put under inspection.”
Another Israeli official, who spoke on the condition he not be named, said: “It is very surprising; first of all, as we are not signatories to the NPT we are not bound by its obligations; and, secondly, the NPT has proven to be ineffective. Its signatories include Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq, which should speak for itself.
“Unlike Iran, we haven’t cheated on any of our obligations.”
Mr Rudd said that, given the security challenges Israel has faced from the 1950s to the second intifada, Australia could understand why Israel had become increasingly anxious about its security needs, particularly given the challenges from Iran.
He said the second part of Australia’s policy on nuclear weapons in the Middle East, as it involved Iran, was equally clear. “That as signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty already, to wit Iran have to give effect to their obligations, and they are not. They are in flagrant violation, a point I reiterated in discussions only a few days ago with the Iranian Foreign Minister.”
On settlements, which have been at the centre of the collapse of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Mr Rudd said: “The position of the Australian government has long been clear. We do not support new settlement construction and the reason is that it undermines the prospects of the successful prosecution of peace negotiations.”
Mr Rudd said the Australian government fully understood Israel’s security concerns from Gaza, but that settlements were “a different matter”.
He expressed concern after comments by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, that if the peace talks achieved nothing he might dissolve the Palestinian Authority and hand over day-to-day running of the West Bank to Israel. “There is a second reality also, which is what security challenges Israel would face if the peace process entirely collapses, if the Palestinian Authority totally disengages or if Abu Mazen were to give effect to what he publicly implied in his recent statements about folding the authority, or if the moderate Arab states would begin to adopt a different posture against a protracted and non-successful peace negotiating process.”
Mr Rudd warned that there may be serious consequences if the peace process collapsed.
“All of us, if we are any students of the history of the last decade or so, have a grasp of what can go wrong, and what can go wrong big time if the Palestinian people don’t have a stake in a negotiated outcome,” he said.